9 Unsafe Sex in the Red Page District

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We all know what we're talking about. Dirty books are fun. It's simply a matter of freedom of pleasure, a right which is not guaranteed by the Constitution, unfortunately.

--Tom Lehrer, That Was the Year That Was

It seems as though every time a new medium is invented people make the horrifying discovery that it's used for sex. Centuries-old orally transmitted bawdy ballads and poetry, printed books, magazines, photographs, movies, videotape recordings, floppy disks, bulletin board systems (BBSs), CD-ROM, cable TV, and now the Internet: the news that humans are interested, even pruriently interested, in sex should be nothing new.

(Did you turn to this chapter first? You pervert.)

Yet we keep replaying this same Puritanical panic that the new medium will deprave and corrupt in new and dangerous ways, even though it's arguable that real-life developments--such as the ready availability of reliable contraception, or an unpopular war inspiring a period of social rebellion and insecurity--have a bigger effect on people's behavior. If, as John Gilmore has so famously remarked, the Net perceives censorship as damage and routes around it, something similar can be said about sex: sex perceives regulation as a dam and diverts into new media.

Most, if not all, of the concern about pornography on the Net is coming from people who are not online but have seen press or police reports, which typically focus on the worst the Net has to offer. It often seems as though the dark side of online is all anyone writes about. One estimate, provided by the electronic newsletter Media Poll and based on database searches of the top fifty U.S. newspapers, showed that from 1993 (that is, before the Web) to 1996, a little over 10 percent of all press reports about the Internet mentioned at least one of the words sex, terrorism, censorship, or pornography. On the assumption that some of these stories might not focus on the Net, Media Poll then eliminated all the articles except those that had the words Internet or World-Wide Web in the headlines; doing that raised the percentages to slightly over 15 percent.[1]

This particular round of panic has unusual resonance with debates in society at large because the definition of acceptable treatment of women (as well as many other groups) has changed dramatically in the closing decades of the twentieth century. New concepts such as date rape and sexual harassment have altered the landscape since the 1970s, when the keynotes of the feminist movement were equal rights, equal work, and equal pay. The basic unit of communication on the Net in early 1997, barring some graphics and audio, is the word. We are used to thinking of words by themselves as harmless, as in the familiar childhood rhyme: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." But a significant line of feminist campaigning equates words with actions and condemns all pornography as a power play designed to keep women in their place as second-class citizens.

Catharine MacKinnon is a good example to cite: "On the assumption that words have only a referential relation to reality, pornography is defended as only words--even when it is pictures women had to be directly used to make, even when the means of writing are women's bodies, even when a woman is destroyed in order to say it or show it or because it was said or shown."[2] But MacKinnon makes little distinction between textual fantasies that don't involve a woman at all and pictures that do.

MacKinnon is not alone. At an international conference held in London on February 13-14, 1997, to discuss means for policing the Internet, human rights campaigner and University of Rhode Island psychology professor Donna Hughes made it plain that she favors tighter regulations, not just of the Net but of all media, to end international exploitation of and trafficking in women. Her exhibit A: a Web site offering Russian brides for sale and another offering sex tours to the Far East. Yet these are not problems that can be solved by regulating the Internet. These are businesses that must be tackled by the relevant law enforcement organizations,


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